Imagery is important. Iconography is important. If you are not a gamer but are inundated with game culture, however, the minute it might be, you know what “Halo” is. Or, more precisely, you know who the Master Chief is. The character, decked in his full body armor, is an iconic piece of gaming culture that has also become the face of Microsoft’s XBOX console. Cortana, the voice assistant of Microsoft, the counterpart of Siri for Apple, is named after the synthetic intelligence character of the “Halo” franchise. In a way, the “Halo” franchise is influential as a game as well as in pop culture as a whole.
Images and iconographies are also dangerous weights to carry the burden of. Especially when the responsibility of adapting “Halo” as a television series comes into the picture. The stigma of live-action video game adaptations hasn’t been eradicated as of yet, though animated content like Netflix’s “Castlevania” and “Arcane” are shining steps in removing the sting of said stigma. The bar for a good video game adaptation is surprisingly low, primarily because the interactive nature of the video game mechanics is a hard one to replicate.
The prime caveat here is my knowledge of the “Halo” universe, which is limited to bits and pieces of iconographical expertise. So my journey through the world of the television series is through fresh eyes. And the television show, at least from a visual and world-building standpoint, does not disappoint. Developed by 343 studios, the caretakers of the “Halo” franchise, Amblin Television, and Showtime, the “Halo” TV series follows a conflict in the 26th century between humanity and an alien race known as the Covenant. The show begins with the Covenant attacking Madrigal, an outlier planet whose inhabitants are active rebels against the UNSC (United Nations Space Command). As the Covenant is almost close to wiping out the desert planet, the UNSC sends their super-soldier analogs. The Spartans were led by Master Chief 117 (Pablo Schrieber). After making quick work of the covenant aliens with spectacular action set-pieces, the town of Madrigal is left with the bodies of the dead, except for Kwan Ha, the daughter of the general of Madrigal. As Master Chief and the Spartans explore the ship of the Covenant and the cave they were excavating, they come across an artifact that affects Master Chief in interesting ways and sets the events of the show in motion.
Right off the bat, the show manages to get Master Chief and the Spartans intact. They look, move, and sound like the characters we are used to controlling or playing. The R-rating gives an ample amount of gore and violence. The show, on the other hand, suffers from too much serialization. At the risk of being expositional, the show’s writing feels generic. The exploration and focus of the UNSC on the planet Reach should be a prime focus of interest. And for the most part, they are. From the characters like Dr. Catherine Huxley (Natasha McElhone), Admiral Paragonsky (Shabana Azmi), and a host of others, each has their parts to play and their agendas within the machinery that is the UNSC. And all of their agendas are completely disrupted when Master Chief 117 starts getting his memory back due to the mysterious artifact.
The big issue that made me raise my eyebrows is the Master Chief removing his helmet, revealing Pablo Schrieber’s face. Now, unlike other helmeted characters like “The Mandalorian,” Master Chief’s decision to not remove his helmet wasn’t due to religion or unavoidable circumstances. So him removing his helmet in a timeline alternate to the games makes sense from a storytelling standpoint. From the standpoint of the fanbase, get used to it, because he is removing his helmet a lot.
On the other hand, little wrinkles like these don’t take away from the world-building and the sharp contrast of the different regions on account of the world-building. It is fascinating, and unlike most shows dealing with science fiction, “Halo” gets to the point of the story very quickly and organically explores the effects. The visual effects and the action set-pieces are top-notch. The writing slowly starts to get interesting from the second episode, and the actors, especially Pablo Schreiber and Yerin Ha, have good chemistry together. Bokeem Woodbine as Soren 066 also brings a healthy amount of comedy and snark to the proceedings.
There is potential here. For a show of such an influential property, the burden of expectations feels like a lot. However, creators Kyle Killen and Steven Kane, and director Otto Bathurst are showing tremendous confidence in and commitment to the story they are weaving. And I am interested, so far, in seeing where this goes. But they really need to get their writing to evolve beyond the generic sci-fi portentousness if they want to stand out from the rest of the science fiction shows or else risk getting lost in the shuffle of “beautiful looking but mediocre sci-fi” junk.
The review of this series is based on the first two episodes provided as screeners. “Halo” will be officially released on Paramount+ and in India on Voot Select starting from March 24th, 2022